Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said Wednesday they had released a Vietnamese-flagged oil tanker they seized last month in the Sea of Oman in a tense incident also involving the US Navy.
While the Guards claimed they thwarted an attempt by the US ship to seize the MV Sothys carrying Iranian oil, US defense officials rejected that account and said that Iran seized the tanker and took it into its territorial waters.
“The seized Sothys oil tanker was released by court order after it was emptied of oil belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran in Bandar Abbas,” said Sepah News, the official website of the Revolutionary Guards.
The Sothys had reached international waters in the nearby Gulf of Oman early Wednesday, data from MarineTraffic.com showed. The vessel appeared anchored there, but there was no information about its crew.
Vietnamese officials could not be reached for comment, though officials in the country earlier acknowledged trying to obtain more information about the seizure from Iran.
The US Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet declined to comment.
Iran’s powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard troops took control of the MV Sothys, a vessel that analysts suspect of trying to transfer sanctioned Iranian crude oil to Asia, on October 24. US forces had monitored the seizure but ultimately didn’t take action as the vessel sailed into Iranian waters.
Iran later celebrated its capture of the vessel in dramatic footage aired on state television, the day before the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran.
The Sothys had been on the radar of United Against a Nuclear Iran, a New York-based advocacy group long suspicious of the Islamic Republic. In a letter dated October 11 addressed to the Vietnam Maritime Administration, the group said its analysis of satellite photos showed the Sothys received a ship-to-ship transfer of oil in June from an oil tanker called the Oman Pride.
The US Treasury identified the Oman Pride in August as being used to transport Iranian oil as part of a smuggling scheme to enrich the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force. That Iranian oil ends up being sold into East Asia, the Treasury alleged, without identifying a specific country.
Iran’s seizure of the Sothys is the latest in a string of hijackings and explosions to roil the Gulf of Oman, which sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes.
The US Navy blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers in 2019, as well as for a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-linked oil tanker that killed two European crew members earlier this year. Just a few months ago, Iranian hijackers stormed and briefly captured a Panama-flagged asphalt tanker off the United Arab Emirates.
Tehran denies carrying out the attacks, but a wider shadow war between Iran and the West has played out in the region’s volatile waters since then-president Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed crushing sanctions on the country.